Direct from the mind of Guy Maddin

Ed Symkus

Sitting through “My Winnipeg,” Guy Maddin’s ode to his hometown in Canada, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll understand his true feelings about the place. Even at the end of the documentary-like film, you probably won’t be sure if he loves the place or loathes it.

Here’s sort of an explanation.

“I was commissioned to make the film by the Documentary Channel in Canada,” says Maddin, during a publicity stop in Boston. “I’d never wanted to make a documentary because documentaries evoke thousands of hours of research and a necessary objectivity. But Michael Burns, who ran the channel, said he’d love me to make a movie about Winnipeg because the two times he had been there, he was totally enchanted. He said, ‘Enchant me.’ He said to make it personal, make it your Winnipeg. My job was to try to enchant viewers as much as I felt enchanted when I’m walking around through the city.

“But I do have my bad days in Winnipeg,” he adds, “when I feel like I want to crawl out of my skin, and then leave, leaving my skin and the city behind.”

Maddin has a fascinating collection of films on his resume. There’s the dazzling and dizzying feature  “The Saddest Music in the World”  — a film set in the Depression, about a legless beer baroness (Isabella Rosellini) who stages a big money contest for songwriters to come up with … well, see the title. There’s the short “Sissy-Boy Slap-Party,” which consists of a group of scantily clad men in a jungle setting, slapping each other.

There are many more, and “My Winnipeg” fits comfortably into his unusual style of mixing black and white with color, and beautifully composed shots with jittery camera movement, all accompanied by peculiar title cards that are supposed to help “explain” things. But it’s also different from anything else he’s done.

“I had a plan for ‘My Winnipeg,’ ” he says. “But then I had to deviate from it quite a bit. I probably had to deviate more with ‘My Winnipeg’ than any other film because I still hadn’t quite found my documentary voice after shooting it. I took a few months off and realized that I didn’t really have an approach. I had no way of getting from one episode or anecdote to another. 

“And then I watched a Sherlock Holmes movie on TCM — ‘Terror by Night.’ It takes place all on a train, and I realized that Winnipeg is all big train yards, and that it used to thrive because of rail traffic, and now it’s dying because of the lack of rail traffic. So I thought it would be nice to make it a train movie. That helped me focus on the movie and figure a way of fitting the pieces together.”

It’s kind of the way Maddin has fit the pieces of his life together.

“I had the laziest of childhoods,” he recalls. “I grew up in a beauty salon, and occasionally I’d join my dad over to the Winnipeg Arena, and I spent my summers at the cottage. It was a dreamy time. My dreams never amounted to much, but I was happy when things didn’t change. I liked stability, I liked the endless, endless, endless hours of just laying on the couch and being too lazy to change the channel. When I went to university, I took the courses that would enable me to be finished at noon. So I ended up as a math and economics major. I guess I just chose the path of least resistance.”

Some time after graduating from university, he found himself working thankless jobs, first in banking, then painting houses. But when he was 24, he got back in touch with some university friends, and fell into a crowd of “film, lit and theater types,” including George Toles, who would become his writing collaborator.

“George and I had these really long conversations, and he taught me that having the answer to things is boring. I kind of liked the idea of abandoning the hemisphere of having the right answer, and just going back to movies that just posed the questions in beautiful ways rather than answer the questions. So since 1980 I’ve been making movies that have been trying to maybe share the feelings I’ve had about certain things — about the experience of grieving or longing or lusting — in ways that make people say, ‘Hey, that’s odd, but that’s kind of the way I do it, too’ ”

So there are Maddin’s movies, and then there’s Maddin’s life. Both feature rather odd stories. Here are a couple that really happened.

“After ‘Saddest Music’ I started sleeping over at Isabella Rosellini’s home, in her guest bed. After I complimented her on the great sleeps I’d been having there, she said, ‘Well, that’s because you’re sleeping in Ingrid Bergman’s death bed,’ ” he says, laughing. “I think she only slept in it a few nights. They decided to buy ailing mom a great new horsehair mattress, then she passed away, and they slipped it into the guest room. That was a perk!”

But things don’t get any stranger than Maddin’s two sight-related grandmother stories.

“My father’s mother, on his first birthday, because she loved him so much, clutched him to her bosom, where she had an unpinned broach, and she poked his eye out — a little Oedipal gouging there. And she spent the rest of her life blinding herself with a pin in every photograph of herself. She would gouge her own eyes out, so there aren’t any photographs of herself in existence where she doesn’t have her own eyes poked out.

“My mother’s mother regained her sight after being legally blind for about 15 years. There’s glaucoma in the family. One day, when I was 14, her vision came back; there was some sort of fluke in her vision, and a form of it came back. She decided to celebrate by going to fetch the newspaper, which she always did anyway. It was kind of heartbreaking, but the one thing she did was to go fetch the newspaper in from between the two front doors so that other people could read it. But that day she fetched the paper so that she could read it, and all the sections sort of spilled out by the basement stairs. When she bent over to catch them, she fell down the stairs.

“That didn’t kill her right away, but she was put into the hospital, which is where elderly people often die of pneumonia. And she did get to read again, for about two days. When I went to the hospital to visit her, she was very disoriented, didn’t have her glasses on, and couldn’t see again.

“I took one look at her, and then looked over at the next bed, and there was a beautiful 18-year-old girl who had been in a car accident. She was semi-comatose, but was writhing around in the bed. She had torn her hospital gown clear off and was completely naked. So I spent the entire hour visiting my grandmother just staring at this girl, until a nurse finally came in and covered her up. I was with my mother, who is very puritan, and she felt it was educational for me to witness a death in the making and this kind of unbelievable erotically charged moment.

“Then to make things even more melodramatically strange, on the way home, to cheer me up, my mom bought me Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced’ — my first lp — and then my sister’s appendix ruptured, and she was rushed into emergency. So we had two very close family members, both of them living under my roof, in the hospital on the same night.

“The phone rang in the middle of the night, and that’s not good. I could hear my mother answer, and I heard her say, ‘And when did she go? OK, we’ll come down and claim her body.’ So I was laying in bed, listening to this conversation, wondering whether she was talking about my sister or my grandmother. So I got to sort of make a deal with the gods: Please, let it be my grandmother. Just two days earlier, I had been beside myself with terror that my grandmother would die, but now found myself somehow praying that it would be her.

“It was a really strange intervention of fate that conspired to anesthetize me entirely, and give me the biggest boner I’ve ever had.”

Ed Symkus can be reached at